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Men – What Happens When Anxiety Affects Your Sex Life?

~ Written By: Alicia Pinkston, MSc, AASECT

Have you ever had trouble getting or maintaining an erection, concern about ejaculating too quickly or not quick enough, or a loss of desire for sex? Concerns like these can be either psychological or physical, or a combination.  Chances are anxiety could be a contributing factor, given that anxiety disorders are the are the most common mental illness in the US. Just thinking about the fear of these things happening can actually make them reality — a self-fulfilling prophecy. Today’s blog will focus on men — how myths and expectations about men’s desire, performance, and satisfaction affect men and also their partners, and we will look at suggestions to overcome these challenges. (Check back for our future blog on how anxiety can affect women related to sex, intimacy and relationships.) You are not alone, at some point every man has had these experiences and the rates for performance anxiety among men continue to increase.

If research shows us that sex is a great way to reduce stress and anxiety – why is sex causing so many people anxiety? Researchers continue to struggle with what is the definition of satisfying sex, since there is almost nothing more individual than what someone defines as sexually pleasurable and satisfying. So, who’s idea of fulfilling pleasurable satisfying sex are we trying to live up to? Social media, movies and tv, peers, culture, religion, previous sexual history, wanting to please your partner, or let’s not forget porn — all contribute to expectations, assumptions, and mixed messages about what satisfying sex really means. The “performance” expectations in porn are unrealistic, where performance is seen more important than pleasure.

Thankfully, with recent research, such as Dr. Sarah Hunter Murray’s book “Not Always in the Mood,” these stereotypes are being challenged. Dr. Murray’s book addresses some of the key myths about men’s sexuality and how they are hurting not only men but also their partners. As limited as the research is regarding heterosexual men, is it even more limited to gay men. Dr. Murray’s research debunks myths such as men are always in the mood for sex, men’s sexual desire is only related to their partners physical appearance, and men should always initiate sexual activity and they always like to be the initiator.

Examples of assumptions about male sexuality:

  • Men always want sex
  • Men should not ejaculate too quickly or not quick enough
  • If he is not erect or cannot maintain an erection, he is not attracted to me
  • The bigger the penis the better
  • The longer he can stay erect and have penetrative sex the better
  • Men only need physical attraction, psychological factors like relationships don’t matter
  • My partner must reach orgasm or he or she did not enjoy it
  • Men in relationships should not masturbate or look at porn
  • If he is looking at porn, he does not desire me
  • If a man looks at a particular porn category, that means he wants to try it
  • A man cannot have pleasure if he does not have an erection

With all these myths and expectations, it is easy to understand how anxiety could interfere with sexual pleasure and intimacy! Research indicates that some of the top factors which men and women indicate that affect their sexual satisfaction are the following: being aroused by their partner, feeling open and not judged by their partners, connection with partner, creativity and variety, pleasing their partner, acceptance, physical pleasure, and closeness.  Anxiety distracts you and prohibits you from being present in the moment. Often the focus then becomes on watching and judging yourself during sex and rating yourself on your “performance” (spectatoring is the term created by Masters and Johnson). Spectatoring robs you of fully enjoying yourself during sex. Spectatoring is caused by cognitive distractions, most often by anxiety — thoughts like “will I maintain my erection,” “is my partner enjoying it,” “is my penis large enough”? Anxiety fights for control while pleasure seeks being present, loss of control (especially during orgasm), freedom, and the getting lost in the moment.

Ok so now you have a better idea of how anxiety can affect sexual satisfaction in men— now what can I do about it?

  1. Health check- always rule out that there is not a medical issue (such as long testosterone) affecting your sexual functioning and side effects of medications. Many medications such as anti-depressants and diabetes medications can have sexual side effects.
  2. Create realistic expectations– what you are seeing in porn is typically not realistic. Research shows that 86% of women are satisfied with the size of their partners penis-let go of size matters and approximately 25% of women orgasm during intercourse alone.
  3. Let go of pressure to perform –Sex is not linear, it does not have to be the same script, when you give yourself permission not to follow a certain path, it builds creativity and gives you and your partner the freedom to explore, and less focus on the goal of orgasm and ejaculation.
  4. Let go of judgement and shame/find what you enjoy- learn to be present in your body and focus on all the aspects of your body that you like (yes— men have body image insecurities too!) let go of “normal” when it comes to sexual pleasure, experiment, play, have fun!
  5. Heal from past sexual trauma– seek support and healing from any sexual messages, threats, or experiences that may be interfering with you experiencing healthy satisfying sex.
  6. Communicate with your partner-initiate foreplay even before you see your partner, share what you want to do later, what you are thinking about. Express to your partner what you enjoy, how and where you want to be touched, and your fantasies. It’s all about communication— best described by sex therapist, Dr. Emily “communication is lubrication”!
  7. Mindfulness – practice being present, in the moment, focus on all the senses you experience with your partner. If you notice a difference in erections, desire, satisfaction, or anxiety when you masturbate versus with your partner— then mindfulness can help.
  8. Consider Therapy/Get Support- you are not alone in your concerns, contact a therapist who specializes in anxiety and or sex therapy, they have experience in working with these concerns and will create a non-judgmental environment to explore your concerns and reach solutions.

Lastly, remember that you are not alone in your concerns, and there are experts who can help you overcome obstacles getting in the way of you having completely satisfying sex life. It’s possible to get the sex life you desire and deserve!